NEW YORK — CNN/U.S. President Jon Klein told staffers of "Lou Dobbs Tonight" on Thursday that the controversy regarding the legitimacy of President Obama's birth certificate -- a topic Dobbs has avidly pursued on the air -- is a "dead" story.
But in an interview, the cable news chief left open the possibility that Dobbs may continue to raise questions about why the president has not produced a long-form birth certificate. The absence of such a record has spawned rumors that Obama was not born in the United States, despite plenty of evidence to the contrary.
"He's got more than 30 years as a television journalist, and I trust him, as I trust all our reporters and anchors, to exercise their judgment as various stories evolve," Klein said of Dobbs, whose daily CNN program is a mix of news and opinion.
"Certainly if there are future news pegs, then we have to take that story as it comes," he added.
That appeared to be a step back from the stance Klein took in his e-mail Thursday, in which he wrote that CNN researchers had determined that Hawaiian officials discarded paper documents in 2001. Because of that, Obama's long-form birth certificate no longer exists and a shorter certificate of live birth that has been made public is the official record, they reported.
"It seems to definitively answer the question," Klein wrote in the e-mail, first reported by the website TVNewser. "Since the show's mission is for Lou to be the explainer and enlightener, he should be sure to cite this during your segment tonite. And then it seems this story is dead -- because anyone who still is not convinced doesn't really have a legitimate beef."
On Friday, Klein said he was not ordering the staff to drop the story.
"When I use the word 'seems,' that's an open invitation to disagree," he said. "Other people may have a different point of view about that, and they're welcome to offer it, because I don't think as management you ever want to be closed down to discussions about editorial issues."
"I have written directives in the past," he added, "and believe me, there would be no mistaking a directive from me."
Klein said he did not hear from Dobbs in response to the e-mail. The host, who raised many of the questions about Obama's birth on his radio program, was on the air Friday afternoon after press deadline and could not be reached for comment.
On Friday, the Southern Poverty Law Center called on CNN to fire Dobbs for trading in "racist conspiracy theories." And some of Dobbs' staff at CNN have told him and network executives that they are uncomfortable with his persistent focus on the story.
Klein defended Dobbs, saying that the host's treatment of the so-called "birther" movement has been "legitimate."
Dobbs pushed his producers to run another segment on the story July 17, a day he was off the air, that would feature two figures behind the Obama alien-birth campaign.
His staff went ahead with the piece, but they wrote a script that called the rumors of the president's foreign birth "the discredited rumor that won't go away."
In the introduction, guest host Kitty Pilgrim shut down questions about the story, saying: "CNN has fully investigated the issue, found no basis for the questions about the president's birthplace, but the controversy lives on."
On his show Thursday, Dobbs did note the explanation from Hawaiian officials, as Klein suggested in his e-mail. But he went on to devote another full segment to the topic.
In it, Dobbs stressed that he has said repeatedly that he believes Obama is a citizen, something that he said his critics in the "left-wing media" ignore. But he continued to press the question of why Obama has not shown a long-form birth certificate.
"When this could be dispelled so quickly, and simply by producing it, why not do it?" he asked.
Times staff writer James Rainey contributed to this report.